By the end of the 1990’s I had finally decided on the topic for my first book. I planned to twin together the lives of two of the world’s most successful businesswomen, cosmetics tycoons Elizabeth Arden and her rival Helena Rubinstein. As I worked on my outline and unfurled their lives, I instinctively knew this had all the ingredients of a stunning story: two formidable women, their rivalry, the business and emotional challenges they confronted – fame and fortune comes at a tremendous personal cost – but above all, the enormity of their achievements. Between them these two trail-blazing entrepreneurial women created the luxury beauty business. They did it emotively by seizing the moment in time when modernity and social freedom was making its way inch by inch into women’s lives, and commercially by transforming the emerging trend for ‘beauty culture’ and harnessing it to the great consumer growth of the early 20th century. That they did it well over a decade before women got the vote, when a single woman might conceivably have a job – but not a career – and when on marriage was expected to retreat to hearth and home just makes their story all the more gripping.
So, convinced I had a good concept, two things were needed to get my book into print. A punchy title and a literary Agent. The Gods were on my side and, having titled my book War Paint, the first then got me the second. At a party hosted by the Conde Nast Organisation I pitched the title – and concept – to one of the best known Agents in London, who, happily for me absolutely loved it. That is to say he ‘loved the title’ and the rest followed. Within weeks my outline was being sent out and the book went to auction with five publishers bidding for the Rights. I chose Virago, (at that time an imprint of Little Brown and ultimately owned by TimeWarner Books) chiefly because I had such a regard for their own gender dynamics in publishing history. A company founded by women to support women writers had got to be a good thing – especially as I was writing about two extraordinary women. At least, that was the reasoning behind my choice.
The book took over two years to complete. I want to Poland to investigate Helena Rubinstein’s early life; and to New York several times to work in the NYC Public Library and the Conde Nast Library before heading up to Washington and further into Virginia to interview old friends of Miss Arden’s. One of my New York trips was especially memorable as I had drinks with the by now legendary jeweller and social arbiter Kenneth J. Lane and was given his memories of my ‘two ladies’. He and I reminisced about life in London thirty years earlier when I greeted guests at the boutique outpost he operated at that time.
So many people helped me on the way while I was researching – they all know who they are so I don’t need to list them again except to continue to say ‘thank you’ for contributing your time, wit and wisdom. Many of my fact-finding trips were poignant. I trawled through graveyards in Cornwall looking for clues about Florence Nightingale Graham’s early life (the name ‘Arden’ was faux) and spent hours in Krakow going through rare, extant Jewish birth and death records with a translator before we went to Auschwitz where Madam Rubinstein lost friends and relatives. I cajoled librarians on several continents to open up their archives for me. All this was largely done in the emergent days of the internet. Instead I had a daily list of phone calls, relied on the fax machine and wrote a lot of letters!
On the topic of letters, serendipity found me gifted firstly the most enormous cache of Miss Arden’s business and personal letters and secondly another invaluable bundle of Madame Rubinstein’s. When I’m talking to groups involved in literary endeavour the fist thing I say is ‘keep writing letters’. I mourn the loss of them and fret that biographers of the future are going to be bereft of character-assessment (or even assassination) by not having the chance to read their letters – nor to see real handwriting – something I always have analysed by an expert to give me a better insight into personality traits.
The result of all this hard work was published in the Spring of 2003, launched on its way with a party at the Polish Club in South Kensington where we had a live jazz band and drank excellent vodka. Elizabeth Arden provided goody bag gifts (not something you see every day at a book launch) and I felt so incredibly proud.
After three decades working with fashion designers who faced show reviews twice a year, I was prepared for the worst in facing up to mine. I needn’t have worried. Apart from some remarks about the book being ‘too long’ – in my defence I was writing about two lives and the birth of an industry – the reviews were amazing.
“Their rivalry was the stuff of legend – neither would utter the other’s name – but they had in common superhuman energy, monstrous egotism and an instinctual understanding of consumer culture”. The Daily Telegraph
“As biography, it’s compelling. As sheer entertainment, it’s utterly delicious” Scotland on Sunday
“The definitive biography of women and their relationships to their faces in the twentieth century”. Linda Grant, Guardian
“With fast-paced prose, Woodhead has succeeded in turning dusty archives into high drama. The story is riveting”. Suzy Menkes, International Herald Tribune
I toured book shops to sign copies, gave talks and travelled to promote the book. Paris to the famous W.H. Smith book shop on the rue de Rivoli, then to Dublin – both precursors of my ‘big trip’ to Australia and New Zealand. I talked in Sydney and Melbourne and in New Zealand did a whistle-stop tour to Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch. Flying back via Hong Kong where I paused for a day to draw breath Back in London there was a flurry of film and television interest – Hollywood Studio executives sent emails. Elton John’s film team got in touch. In the end they came to nothing. Meanwhile I signed an option with BBC Films and, in what I learned was part of the fame-game, it too came to nothing. But all the activity kept me endlessly busy and I mulled over the fact that I had thought writing would be a ‘quieter life’. I was wrong!
Within a month or so the book had sold to Japan, a business deal involving another long-haul journey and a fascinating week spent in interviews and presentations in Tokyo.
Then came the paperback – destined originally to come out a year afterwards it got bumped up when Estee Lauder died. She had arguably been the ‘heir’ to the Arden empire on Elizabeth’s death and her own passing was the end of a ‘hands on’ era where the eponymous owner of a cosmetics company controlled every facet of their businesses – blithely regardless as to who the divisional managers were. I wrote about Mrs Lauder’s passing in the Daily Telegraph.
Next of course came the lull. Always the way it seems with the launch of a paperback – when the interest in the trade is ‘what comes next’ and the author sits down to agonise over their thoughts and plans for a follow up. In my case I thought I had the ideal topic. Another ‘joint biography’ this time about the two women who arguably created the cult of celebrity – Hollywood columnists Hedda Hopper and Louella O. Parsons. I called the story LOVE & HISSES and lovingly nurtured their lives into an outline. My publisher at Virago wasn’t quite so sure. The general feeling was that the story was ‘too American’. I didn’t mind – I was carried away with enthusiasm for the film industry insiders and rather liked the idea of moving to Hollywood for a few months to research more thoroughly, reasoning that my (American) Agent could place the work elsewhere. Then came 9/11 and everything changed. In the grim aftermath the last place I wanted to be was alone in America. In the end the idea wasn’t developed into a book. Instead I wrote it as a feature for the Times Colour Magazine – one of two big film related stories they commissioned from me – and here it is: (RJ Love & Hisses)